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by American-Chick-Lit | November 6, 2008 New York Teacher issue
Mid-lesson, nothing wrests my attention quite like a left-field comment about material things: “Miss, those are Prada shoes you got on!”
This has happened at least four times in different classes at different schools when I’m wearing the same pair of flat, rubber-soled, water-resistant, “sensible” shoes that cost me no more than a cool $29.99 at TJ Maxx. I’m a teacher.My wardrobe says so. I say to my kids, “I’m sorry, but I don’t even know what Prada shoes look like. OK. Back to the book…”
Would I really walk to school through rain puddles and rubbish wearing shoes that cost me a sixth of my paycheck?
One of my most diligent students arrives early every single morning, no matter what the weather. Even in one of the worst downpours of September, he made it to English well before the bell; however, he told me that morning that he had been unable to do his homework.
I didn’t ask for a story, but being the congenial kid he is, Donny gave me one. Apparently, the electricity at his home had been shut off, so he couldn’t see anything after he got home from football practice.
“No lights,Miss,” he told me. “My mom couldn’t cook, and we couldn’t watch TV or see or anything.” I felt a little guilty having cooked myself a meal and watched the Weather Channel before I left for school. I stood — semi-dry, full from breakfast and ready to begin a day at school — and I listened to him.And I felt bad. Donny was sitting in front of me, starving and soaked from a trek in the rain.
“I got to take the 1 or 9 bus, and either way, I gotta wait in the rain,” he explained. Out of pity for his having already had a rough day, I asked him to just relax and dry off a bit before class. “No money for an umbrella, Miss,” he shrugged.
Finally! Something I could help him out with: I promised I’d look for a spare umbrella for him. There were always one or two extras in my closet or even in our office at school. Because he’s a kid who is good at banter, he thanked me and then continued, “And man, Miss, these are $90 jeans! Can you believe I got these all wet?”
This is where my sympathy stopped. “Ninety? Ninety dollars?” I caught myself saying.
“Yeah, look. They got the leather detail on the pockets and the zippers right here and here.”
In my head I thought, But you had no lights last night. These are, as Jerry Maguire so smartly said, “the things we think and do not say.” But why can’t we say things like that to students? Right then, I wanted to take my lesson on poetry and turn it into a lesson on priorities. I wanted to ask an entire class: Which would you rather have, working electricity or leather details on your jean pockets? These are the other things I wanted to ask: Where do our students’ and their families’ priorities lie when it comes to things like clothes and shoes, food and shelter, electricity and education? How do we, or do we, help them to change their perspectives on these things at all?
Instead, I let Donny and his $90 jeans dry off, and I asked that he make up the work another day.
American-Chick-Lit is the pseudonym of a second-year teacher in a high school in the Bronx. A version of this post first appeared in the UFT blog, edwize.org, where “New Teacher Diaries” is a regular feature. If you’re interested in writing for edwize, send an e-mail to William Levay at email@example.com.
What is your favorite movie about a teacher?
Dead Poets Society
Stand and Deliver
Mr. Holland's Opus
Total votes: 655